How Proficient at Kayaking Are We Anyway?
Before we get you too far down this road on our paddling journey around the Lake Champlain shoreline, we want to make sure the reader does not misunderstand the level of kayaking skill that we bring to this endeavor.
We are not hard core, agile, strong, polished kayakers who challenge gale force winds without a thought, do Eskimo rolls to right our capsized kayaks, race the length of the lake, paddle day after day without sore muscles, lift heavy kayaks onto the tops of cars without a grunt or moan. Nor do we venture out in iceberg filled waters north of the Arctic circle, as one reads about in Sea Kayaking Magazine. We are just two grey haired “60 somethings” doing our thing. We are pretty good at paddling in a straight line, when we want to, which is not all the time. We are pretty good at knowing how to pace ourselves, doing so for up to six hours at a time, with adequate amounts of Gatorade, gorp, carrots and potty stops along the way
Without doubt, getting in and out of a kayak is the most challenging part of being a kayaker, and the older one gets the more challenging it becomes. There are prescribed ways and creative ways to do it. The prescribed ways were invented by people under the age of 30. The creative ways were invented by us! I used to be a purist and get into my kayak with the official prescribed method, placing my paddle across the kayak just behind the seat with one end in the water to brace both me and the kayak. I would place one hand on the paddle and one hand on the side of the kayak. Then I would put first one leg and then the other into the boat and gracefully (don't I wish!) slip myself into the seat as my legs fitted under the cockpit. But the bracing paddle just never seemed to offer as much stability as I wanted in those 10 seconds of pure balancing before my butt safely hit the seat. I am still fairly successful getting in the kayak this way on a shallow, flat, sandy beach but in any other conditions I am always thankful and quite amazed when I am once again in the boat, paddle in hand, still in an upright position.
Margy, who had never learned the “official” way of getting in the kayak never seems to have any trouble. She does what we call the “butt plop” entry. She puts one leg in the boat and then plops her butt down on the seat and hopes she can then bend the other leg and the leg whose knee is now in her face, under the front deck. Actually, this works really well despite how it looks and it is much more stable. I now use Margy's “butt plop” method exclusively. I might add however, that Margy has long slender legs; so bending them enough to get them in the cockpit is not as challenging for her as it is for others, like me for example. I come from a long line of shall we say “sturdy legged people”. Bending my leg enough to shove it under the cockpit is a bit more challenging for me, but it is still light years ahead of the other method! As with other aspects of getting older, we may not look good but we are very practical!
The “butt plop” technique has one other minor advantage. (Have we mentioned yet that it is impossible to go kayaking without getting wet?) Most people enter a kayak from shallow water. So their feet are wet before they even get in the boat . Now, no matter how dry the kayak is, and you can sponge it down to perfection, your feet will transfer water inside every time! And more than likely most of that water is going to end up on the seat. So inevitably your butt is going to get wet the minute you sit down, and if the water is cold it is a real wake up jolt. From that point on your shorts, or pants, or bathing suit is going to be wet the rest of the day. This includes while you are kayaking, when you get back in the car, or if you stop to get a cold drink or snack. To the rest of the world you are going to look like you wet your pants!! There is no getting around it. So here is where the “butt plop” technique has its minor advantage. You just get that “wet bum” jolt over with right at the beginning instead of prolonging the inevitable by trying to daintily shake the water off each foot while you balance precariously on your other foot or hands and before you lower your center of gravity by sliding into the kayak seat. Actually, Margy alleges that the “butt plop” technique keeps the seat dry because the first foot in the kayak bypasses the seat and the well placed butt keeps the seat dry as the trailing foot travels over it and into the boat.
Getting out of a kayak also has its challenges for us! Exiting our kayaks reaches an altogether higher level of difficulty when we do it in front of other people who may not appreciate the inherent difficulty of the maneuver. Getting out of our boats in a public place like a ferry dock is very intimidating. There we are with all the drivers and passengers in all the waiting cars watching us land and try to stand up after sitting with legs outstretched in a confined space for the last two hours . I want to yell out to all of them who are within earshot “Please understand, I have been sitting like this, legs outstretched, for the past two hours and there is no guarantee that my legs will function as if they are attached to my body when I first try to stand up! They may have temporarily transferred control to some one else!” If ever there is a time that we don't want to blow it, it is then in front of all those people . We must confess that this maneuver, with or without audience, is sometimes accompanied by a groan or a sigh of relief, but we refuse to admit that it is age related.
A word about potty stops is in order here because it is related to the ease with which we get in and out of our kayaks. First of all, public toilets on the lake are few and far between. They are usually found at public beaches and boat accesses, but if you have reached the age at which the movie theaters GRANT you “senior citizen” status those public toilets seem very far apart! And we might add, those “few and far betweens” are never there when we have to use them! Additionally, absent a public facility, there is not always a friendly, undeveloped shore with a soft sandy landing when we want one. So, we have learned to make do. That means getting in and out of the kayak on rocky shores, flooded marshy flats, or even where there is no shore at all, but water shallow enough to stand in. We might add that it is not always easy to tell if the water we are in is shallow enough to stand in. If the water is really clear it can look shallower than it actually is. We have learned, if we remember, to test the depth with our paddle before climbing out. In all cases one has to put one foot out in the water hoping for a rock that is not slippery, or muck that is not too deep, or water that is not deeper than one's leg is long. Getting the other leg out to make a safe upright landing is even more problematical. Margy is still working on perfecting the “stand with one leg in the water and one in the kayak” technique but has not quite gotten the routine down yet. In fact the “butt plop” originator came within a couple of inches of rolling the kayak the other day before her foot luckily touched bottom. And if this balancing on one leg while you get the other one up and over the side of the kayak into the water is difficult in calm water, you can imagine what it is like in 2- 3 foot waves. Have we mentioned yet that it is impossible to go kayaking without getting wet?
She does what we call the “butt plop” entry. She puts one leg in the boat and then plops her butt down on the seat and hopes she can then bend the other leg and the leg whose knee is now in her face, under the front deck.
By the time we have everything attached to our bodies, we look like a couple of penguins who've just left a used clothing sale.
One thing we have gotten almost professional at is putting our kayaks on the car rack.
So let's say we successfully get out of the boat and do our thing. Remember we then eventually have to get back in again and that is a whole other bag of worms. Have we mentioned yet that it is impossible to go kayaking without getting wet?
As for other advanced skills, we are also not into “rolls”, the type you see real kayakers practicing, purposely capsizing their kayaks, turning turtle, and then bracing themselves with their paddle and popping back up on the other side. It does look pretty cool we must admit, and we are envious, but there is no way either of us is going to do that. First of all sea kayaks are a lot bigger and heavier than white water kayaks and thus the momentum and shear strength it takes to do a successful roll is considerable. Then there is also the fear thing. At our ages neither of us is comfortable dangling upside down, underwater, while figuring out where to put the paddle and which way to push, all before we run out of breath. Even if we were strong enough, neither of us is brave enough to even want to try it. So if and when we tip over we just bail out of the boat. And because there are two of us, getting back in the kayak is not as difficult as it would be if one of us was alone. We have not, however, had to practice this stunt to date. (Margy wrote that! The whole sentence makes me nervous. Is there a virtual piece of wood one can digitally knock on?)
In case you have mistakenly come to the conclusion that we are brave beyond our years, because we venture out in unknown waters knowing we might well tip over, rest assured, we are not! Almost all “tip-overs” happen, as described above, when trying to get in and out of the kayak while it is one or two feet from shore in shallow water, no rolls needed, just a good sense of humor!
There is another area in which you might question our good judgment and professionalism or just plain “with it” ness. For reference, there is a picture on our website of the two of us about to launch from Port Kent, NY. In addition to the aforementioned wet shorts/bathing suit one sits in, what we wear on the rest of our bodies is a strange combination of clothing indeed, but true to character, it is practical and it all works. Ideally we want something to keep us warm when it is cool and cool when it is warm, and in both cases as dry as possible, except when we are really hot and want to get wet! You understand the complexity of the “what to wear” dilemma. Cathy has a quick drying short sleeve shirt (or long sleeve if the day demands it) and shorts and when the day is cool, an old windbreaker whose sleeve elastic has long since disappeared. That allows her to roll up the sleeves of the wind breaker when she starts to get warm. Margy, wears a really really old bathing suit and, trying to prevent too much sun exposure, wears a man's long sleeve shirt for protection. But that is only the beginning! On top of that we wear a spray skirt to be fastened around the cockpit of the kayak in rough water. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with “spray skirts”, they are usually made of waterproof nylon. One end fits round ones waist like a skirt, thus the name, and the other fits tightly around the lip of the cockpit. When attached they keep water from getting into the kayak when the waves are breaking over the side. A spray skirt looks OK when you are actually in the kayak because either it is unattached to the cockpit and crumbled in your lap where no one can see it or it is attached to the cockpit and looks very functional. However, when you get out of the boat and walk around with it around your waist, it looks more like an oversized modern day loin cloth with a pointed center dropping down below your knees. It looks pretty silly. On top of that goes a waterproof waist pack. These hold cameras, car keys, credit card and driver's license. Margy sometimes carries binoculars, but mostly she talks about having forgotten them. Under this collection, Margy adds her raincoat, when appropriate, tied around her waist for lumbar help and so she won't lose it. And on top of that we both have our life jackets! By the time we have everything attached to our bodies, we look like a couple of penguins who've just left a used clothing sale. Just another reason for not going ashore too often, especially not in public!
Now there is one other function that kayaking clothing should fulfill. It should help make us as visible as possible. Kayaks ride low in the water and can be hard to see by others, so bright colors are essential if one wants to have a fighting chance against rapidly approaching larger boats. That of course includes most boats on the lake . Margy, still oblivious to this need, presents a totally coordinated blue and green image from blue boat right up to faded green life jacket and matching blue hat. Her only colorful object is her bright yellow spray skirt. Margy claims this was not planned, but the result of her inability to buy clothing or objects that are anything but blue or green. Cathy, on the other hand, feeling the need to be visible enough for both of us, has a bright blue kayak, red spray skirt, bright magenta windbreaker and yellow life jacket which make her look like a short circuited traffic light paddling down the bay.
Now, having said all of that, we do not want to leave you with the idea that we are totally inept. One thing we have gotten almost professional at is putting our kayaks on the car rack. That might seem a strange skill for “60 something” grey haired ladies, but we are proud of our prowess. Each of us can get her kayaks on her car alone if we have to although doing it together is much easier and more efficient. One day when we ended our trip at the Cumberland Head ferry dock, the woman ticket attendant watched us carry our boats to the car, put them on the car rack and tie them down. When we pulled through her booth to get our ticket she complimented us on our work and said in admiration “those boats aren't going anywhere!” It made our day.
We need to explain that putting the boats on the car top is an acquired skill. We were not always so good at it. And when Margy finally got a kayak rack that would hold both our boats (three years into this project!), she put it on the car, but we did not figure out how to attach the kayaks until we had ended our 14-mile paddle to Willsboro Bay and were there with our two boats, her car, a new rack and no idea how to put the boats on. Lucky for us, Margy had remembered to throw the instructions in the back of her car. Luckier still, Cathy was able to find them. It was one of these racks that you stand your kayak up on its side rather than laying it flat on the top of the roof so the strapping was not obvious. With instructions in hand we managed to get ourselves set (necessity is a great motivator!), but not having total faith in our work, we drove home along NY Route 9, instead of the Northway, where we could travel at a slower speed.
Cathy was pretty skeptical about this rack in the beginning, but after a couple of trips she became convinced of its sturdiness and ease of use . It turns our that not only was the rack a little easier to use, but putting boats on Margy's car roof is easier because her car is not as tall as Cathy's. So Cathy went out and bought an improved model for her husband's car which is the same make as Margy's. Now, this is where Joe gets the good guy award, again. Guess whose car we now use when we need two cars? Joe's and Margy's cars are just low enough so that holding the kayak above our heads, we can load it sideways onto the car. (Oops, watch that 2-meter antenna. We have only broken one of Joe's so far.) On Cathy's car we have to put the kayaks on from the back and then, standing on tip toes, push it forward on the roller kayak rack. An additional advantage of the vertical racks is that should we be driving back in the pouring rain, a constant possibility in Vermont , we do not fill our kayaks with water while they are on top of the car. Cathy tried a cockpit cover to prevent this from happening earlier this summer, but it didn't hang around very long and we hope that whoever found it on interstate 87 is enjoying it.
And the final kayaking skill? Paddling of course! Actually, a good kayak stroke takes more than just arm muscle. If done correctly, your legs, shoulders, and abdominals will get a workout as well. When we are fresh and well rested we give ourselves a good workout but at the end of a long day, well whatever it takes with whatever is left! (Margy, do you think I can draft behind that Adirondack Guide boat over there?)
One last note, while we may not always look professional…well OK, we never look professional… we do not skimp on safety and common sense…well OK, we don't now. We probably did when we first started. One or the other of us, and in some cases both of us, always carry a tow rope, a bilge pump, spray skirts, a first aid kit, Advil, an emergency horn, sun screen, dog treats, sunglasses, water, Gatorade and a cell phone on all trips! By the time we finish this project, we will probably have so much stuff we will need to tow an extra kayak behind to carry it all!
So there you have it, an honest description of our kayaking skills and know how. We butt plop into our kayaks, we frequently make less than graceful entries and exits from our boats, we have wet pants all day and we look like two bag ladies afloat. And we have a wonderful time doing it all, and have long since gotten over being self-conscious!
© Copyright 2004 Cathy Frank, Margy Holden